Heading into the season, many Cal fans including yours truly penciled this game as a win for the Bears. Four brutal games into the season, and now the Bears find themselves as slight home underdogs against Mike Leach's WSU Cougars.
Words don't describe how big of a game this is for the Bears. Beyond just needing to get back into the win column, the Bears need something good for them in the worst possible way. A win over the Cougars isn't going to make their season, but it's not difficult to see a loss breaking it. For the first time in weeks, the Bears face off a manageable opponent, albeit an improved team in the Cougs, and a loss would all but crush the team's already bruised confidence.
The Bears need some validation that the work they've been putting in and the tough lessons learned during blowout losses to highly ranked teams were not all for naught.
Again, Cal needs this win, and they need it bad.
Let's get to a couple of quick keys to the game.
Pass Rush Needs to Come Alive
Cal's lack of pass rushing has been supremely disappointing this season. Through four games, the Bears have netted just 4 sacks, and just one in the past two games.
Part of it has been the inability by Cal's pass rushers to get in the backfield, but part of it has also been scheme. Cal's gameplanned for mobile quarterbacks in all of their games this season, and for the first time they face a WSU QB in Connor Halliday who isn't going to be used a designed runner.
That's going to allow the Bears to get a bit more aggressive and creative in their pass rushing schemes, and if there were ever a week to being implementing those wrinkles in Cal's defense, this is it.
Not be forewarned, WSU doesn't give up a boat load of sacks. Their offense, much like Dykes and Franklin's offense is designed to get the ball out quickly, and opposing pass rushers rarely have the time to get to the quarterback before the pass is already out.
Instead of looking for sacks, Cal needs to be looking for disruption. I've been watching Connor Halliday for seemingly forever, and while he's a strong-armed gunslinger, he can be pressured into making more mistakes than almost any other QB in the conference. While Halliday is second in the conference in passing yards, he's ranked last in interceptions with 9 on the season. He's the type who can give your 4 TDs and 4 INTs in the same game.
When opposing defenses bring pressure, and he finds a pass rusher bearing down on him, Halliday has a tendency to throw mechanics to the wayside, often throwing errant passes off of his back foot. The Bears need to bank on Halliday's penchant for brainfarts by bringing the heat. It doesn't always have to be in the form of blitzes, but Cal's got to begin getting creative in the ways they bring the heat, by disguising their pressure, whether it's in the form of delays, stunts or twists. This is not the time to send four straight on. We've seen that, and it hasn't worked then, and it's not going to work now.
Stretch the Field Vertically
At first glance, Washington State's pass defense has been hugely impressive statistically. The Cougars are ranked 11th in the nation, giving up just 159 yards per game. Those are fantastic numbers.
Then you look at the passing offenses they've faced, and suddenly things don't look that impressive anymore. Check out these passing offense rankings: Auburn (92nd), USC (100th), Souther Utah (FCS), Idaho (69th), Stanford (79th). In other words, the Cougars have benefited statistically from facing some of the worst passing offenses in the country, and when they played against a mediocre passing offense in Stanford, they were torched for 322 passing yards.
Stats may lie, but your eyes don't. After watching the WSU Stanford game, WSU's biggest vulnerability in their secondary is their ability to give up big plays. Their safeties can be overly aggressive, which leads to their cornerbacks often being left alone on an island. That presents an issue when those corners are matched up against speedy wide receivers.
That sounds like a juicy matchup if Cal can utilize Bryce Treggs and Kenny Lawler at the outside receiver positions, and Chris Harper getting some nice matchups against nickelbacks and linebackers at his new inside receiver position. Cal's got the speed to do some work against the Cougs' D. They just need to take advantage of it.
Defense Has to Shed Blocks Quicker
The Air Raid offense is designed to space out defenders and get the ball out into space quickly. Philosophically, it's very much like what Cal's offense is designed to do. One of the biggest difference is that instead of running the ball equally, Leach prefers to get the ball out to his receivers quickly to his backs and receivers swing passes.
And like we saw last week, if Cal's defenders can't shed blocks on those quick swings, the Cougars are going to eat Cal's secondary alive. Dykes has been saying that Cal's secondary has been getting better and better each day of practice this week, with a lot of it having to do with finally being able to play the same players consistently throughout the entire week of practice. Let's hope so, because Cal needs its secondary to be physical and technically sound in getting to the ball.
I'll say it again: the Bears desperately need this win. You gotta think that they know this all too well. I see Jared Goff getting back into a rhythm, and though Cal's D will give up some big plays, I think they play with a bit more aggression and confidence this week, forcing enough WSU mistakes to squeak out an ugly win.
If Cal loses this one, expect the wheels to being really falling off. Let's hope desperation does some big things.
Friday, October 4, 2013
Posted by Bear with Fangs at 3:51 PM